“In the Cold, Cold Night,” The White Stripes
When we discussed A Soul’s Calling we talked a bit about the fact that not everything that happens is automatically a story. It takes a certain artistry on the part of an author to make something a story*…it doesn’t simply become a story because we would like it to be one. Lawrence Fisher, author of Kill Me Now!: A Middle Aged Man’s Maneuvers Through the Frontline of the Dating Battlefield understands this much. Frustratingly, however, he settles for minor interjections, irrelevant detours and repeated attempts at coining a catch phrase. The end result feels much less like a middle-aged dating handbook than it does like an awkward performance at an open-mic comedy club.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book itself is structured as a journal, running for seven months’ time. It starts in December and ends in July, though we don’t get any idea of what year it’s meant to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does contribute to an overall feeling of detachment from the action. It’s difficult to care about the folks who appear on these pages simply because we never really get to know them, and there’s no opportunity to do so. We might hear that so-and-so is going to a wedding soon, or that Lawrence spoke to someone at the gym, or that somebody else is a nutritionist, but these things function more as labels than as descriptors, and by the end of the book we don’t know Ed — Lawrence’s most frequently referred-to friend — any better than we know a nameless woman who once confused Lawrence in a parking lot. He, like everybody else, is a faceless reference point that doesn’t have any reason to be referred to.
Each entry is given a specific date, for instance February 24 or May 2, but the action is often entirely removed from that date, with Lawrence describing things that might have happened days or weeks previously. Again, it really fuels a feeling of overall detachment more than anything else, and just serves to erect another barrier between us and the vague, hazy “action” that the book is trying to describe.
In many entries, but not all, Lawrence is on a date. His intentions for writing about these dates — which are clearly fictionalized to an extent, but that’s a good thing — flip-flop at various times throughout the book. Sometimes he’s writing about these things in order to “decode the signals of his enigmatic opponent” (as he has it on the back cover), and other times he seems to just want to make us laugh. Either of these ambitions is fair, and certainly they could be combined easily enough, but none of the anecdotes pull very far in either direction, let alone both.
If we are to appraise the book on its ability to “decode” anything we’d had to say it’s a failure, because we don’t really glean much direct insight into anything. (That “direct” is a key word there…stay tuned.) We’ll have, as a hypothetical but faithful example, a situation in which Lawrence is eating dinner with a woman. He’ll pick up on signals, but he won’t know what they mean…nor will he even make an attempt to figure them out. He’ll write something along the lines of, “She’s twirling her hair. What does that mean? And why did she turn down the wine? Does she not drink, or does she just not want to drink with me? Why is she looking over her shoulder?” and so on, essentially just reminding us that signals are being given…but with no attempt made to figure them out. He raises the question…and leaves it there. There’s not much decoding going on; just a constant series of reminders that Lawrence doesn’t know what’s going on.
If we are to appraise the book as a purely humorous work, we find it inching a bit closer to success. After all, dating can be very funny. We’ve all been on bad dates, and it’s probably safe to say that we’ve all been on at least a few outright terrible ones. Some of those might make for a good story, but none of Lawrence’s dates seem that bad. Perhaps he just chose the wrong unidentified year to record in print, but overall these dates are more awkward than awful, making it puzzling that he’d want to single any of these out as hilarious anecdotes. It also makes his constant entreaties to the reader to “Kill me now!” (attempt #1, of approximately 20, at a catchphrase) feel that much more overwrought.
In one instance, the worst thing that happens on one of his dates is that the woman turns out to be shorter than he thought, because she was wearing boots when they met. Another time he is approached by a woman at a coffee shop who asks him “Is this seat taken?” He says no…and she takes the seat with her to go sit with her friends. These may indeed have been funny moments in Lawrence’s real-life dating adventures, but on the page they don’t feel like they warrant much more than a footnote, and they certainly don’t deserve several pages of build up apiece. Why is Lawrence shouting “Kill me now!” when the worst thing that happened is that a woman talked too much on their date? That’s really not that bad…it’s not as though she tried to mug him or became verbally abusive.
What’s really problematic about some of these stories is that Lawrence comes off as more than a little shallow and condescending. A good portion of the time he wants his readers to kill him now simply because his date isn’t attractive enough. Yes, we know, people use misleading photos in their online dating profiles all the time, but it’s a bit harsh, once a woman has made the effort to meet with you, to fixate entirely on her looks and write for page after page about how she isn’t up to your standards, physically.
Kill Me Now! makes fun of people who are unattractive, people who are too old, people who have speech impediments, and so on. It begins to feel rather cruel, as these aren’t decisions that people have made. It’s one thing to pick on a woman for boasting about her achievements all night, or something, but it’s another thing entirely to say she’s too fat and leave it at that. That’s, to put it simply, just not very nice, and absolutely nothing that deserves to be immortalized in print.
The fact is also that these women are in the same boat Lawrence is, and that’s something that goes almost totally unacknowledged throughout the entire book. These women are lonely too. They’re trying just as hard to find love, but the narration would have you believe that they’re just out there to waste time and mislead strangers.
It would have made for a far, far better book if Lawrence really did try to decode their signals, because then perhaps the book would reveal the grand truth that they’re all lonely people, and they’re all being shallow and picky, and they all need to slow down and figure out what they want before rushing into every opportunity that presents itself.
Both Lawrence and these women are pouncing on everything that comes along…so of course they end up feeling disappointed more often than not. That should imbue our narrator with a sense of kinship toward these women. They’re all making the same mistakes, and they’re all in search of the same thing in the same way. Instead, however, his “opponent” remains just that, and he’s free to simply dismiss them for being too ugly. It’s disappointing on a number of levels, and the rampant homophobia doesn’t help things either.
In a few chapters Lawrence lets the mask slip somewhat. Instead of shoehorning meaningless references into his text (everything from Alf to Seinfeld to, you guessed it, Don’t Mess With the Zohan) and attempting to coin catchphrases, he takes a moment to write about the truth of his situation: he’s a lonely man. He just wants somebody who will be happy to see him, and be with him, and start a family with him.
That’s sweet. That’s human. And that’s something that would make his story much more humorous if we got to see it more often. When somebody picks on others for being less than perfect, it’s not funny. When somebody picks on others as a defense mechanism because he himself is less than perfect and would rather project his insecurities onto others, well, you’ve got something there. Something worth reading. And maybe even, in some gloriously twisted way, something moving.
Instead we have a series of monologues — I’d coin a phrase for a corresponding male version of The Vagina Monologues, but I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound incredibly mean-spirited — in which Lawrence fails to understand which story he’s even telling.
As with A Soul’s Calling, we have something here. But the author would prefer to focus on something else…and it’s something that, unfortunately, doesn’t get him very far. Kill me now.
* Someone I knew years ago referred to this as a necessary “romancing” of our experiences. I thought that that was a fantastic way to put it, and it’s stayed with me ever since. The fact that his writing was awful only further proved to me that even bad writers — and he’d be the first to admit he was, at least at the time — can understand that raw material needs to be spun into art if it’s going to be worth reading.
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.
So this is what I was originally planning for Valentine’s Day…only I planned for it around five months in advance and then forgot to do it. It’s a collection of love songs from Thomas Pynchon’s novels. I’m a huge Pynchon fan (DID YOU KNOW THAT??) and the little original ditties he embeds in his text are like charming, reliable life-rafts amid the glorious, chaotic sprawl. And I’ll be honest…every time I’ve picked up a new Pynchon book I’ve looked forward to the songs the most. They range from silly to clever to genius, and, in some way, I love them all.
When I used to run a different (much more personal) blog, I posted The Love Songs of Thomas Pynchon for Valentine’s Day, and it very surprisingly became the most popular post on my site. I have no idea why, but it was certainly a great feeling, and with that site long gone I thought I’d post it again. This time I’m including a few songs I left out of the first post — no real reason, I just wasn’t as big a fan of them — and I’m including the love songs from the two novels that have come out in the meantime. So this is much more complete.
Pynchon deliberately blurs lines between love, lust, friendship and fondness, so there are a few arguable love songs that were left out, and maybe a few that leaned in another direction that might have crept in instead. But here you go. In some cases Pynchon assigns his own song titles, but he usually does not. Any song titles that I’ve taken the liberty of assigning are in brackets, so blame me if you don’t think they’re appropriate. I’ve also left in a few textual moments if I felt they contributed to the “feel” or understanding of the song. Otherwise they were trimmed out for the sake of easier reading.
I hope you enjoy. Reading Pynchon is a blast, and his songs are a huge part of that. Some of them are silly, some of them are genuinely moving, and some of them are just absurdly fun. I threw in a gorgeous interpretation of “The Eyes of a New York Woman” at the end, just because it’s wonderful…and it’s always fun to get a glimpse into how these songs sound to somebody else. I can only ever hear my own versions, in my own head. And I hope you enjoy the ones you hear, too. Happy late Valentine’s Day.
As I lie and watch the moon
On the lonely sea,
Watch it tug the lonely tide
Like a comforter over me,
The still and faceless moon
Fills the beach tonight
With only a ghost of day,
All shadow gray, and moonbeam white.
And you lie alone tonight,
As alone as I;
Lonely girl in your lonely flat, well, that’s where it’s at,
So hush your lonely cry.
How can I come to you, put out the moon, send back the tide?
The night has gone so gray, I’d lose the way, and it’s dark inside.
No, I must lie alone,
Till it comes for me;
Till it takes the sky, the sand, the moon, and the lonely sea.
And the lonely sea…etc. [FADE OUT.]
Whoa! Come ‘n’ let me roll that
Little grass skirt,
In the Zig Zag, of my em-
Light on up, With th’
Flame of love, take
The frown right, off o’ your face!
Put it in a roach clip,
Pass it to and fro,
In between your lips and let th’
Good smoke flow, oh
It won’t cost much, and
It ain’t gonna hurt, just
C’mere with that uh little, grass skirt!
Have I told you, fella
She’s got the sweetest columella
And a septum that’s swept ’em all on their ass;
Each casual chondrectomy
Meant only a big fat check to me
Till I sawed this osteoclastible lass:
Till you’ve cut into Esther
You’ve cut nothing at all;
She’s one of the best, Thir,
To her nose I’m in thrall.
She never acts nasty
But lies still as a rock;
She loves my rhinoplasty
But the others are schlock.
Esther is passive,
Her aplomb is massive,
How could any poor ass’ve
Ever passed her by?
And let me to you say
She puts Ireland to shame;
For her nose is retroussé
And Esther’s her name….
For the last eight bars she chanted “No” on one and three.
The Englishman’s very shy,
He’s none of your Ca-sa-no-va,
At bowling ladies o-ver,
A-mericans lead the pack–
–You see, your Englishman tends to lack
That recklessness transatlantic,
That women find so romantic
Though frankly I can’t see why…
The polygamous Yank with his girls galore
Give your Brit-ish rake or carouser fits,
Though he’s secretly held in re-ve-rent awe
As a sort of e-rot-ic Clausewitz….
If only one could al-ly
A-merican bedroom know-how
With British good looks, then oh how
These lovelies would swoon and sigh,
Though you and I know the Englishman’s very shy.
I was only sixteen, upon your wedding day,
I stood outside the churchyard, and cried.
And now I’m working for the man, who carried you away,
And ev’ry day I see you by his side.
Sometimes you’re smiling,– sometimes you ain’t,
Most times you never look my way,–
I’m still as a Mill-Pond, I’m as patient as a Saint,
Wond’ring if there’s things you’d like to say.
Oh, are you day-dreaming of me,
Do you tuck me in at Night,
When he’s fast asleep beside you,
Are those Fingers doing right?
How can Love conquer all,
When Love can be so blind? and you’ve got
Bradley on your Name,
And Mason on your Mind….
Whoo! is this the start of a
Nothin’ much to do with
Is it th’ start of,
Another cheap ro-mance?
(Here Scott Oof, as he had for thousands of identical renditions, filled with a phrase stolen from Mickey Baker on “Love Is Strage” .)
This hot tomato’s lookin’
Uh just th’ thing to git me,
Off my feet,
Oboy, the start of,
Another cheap ro-ho-mance!
Yep — looks like the start of
Another cheap ro-ho-
Gits ya thinkin’, is it
Me, or is it mah
Well cheap romance is my
Kind of thing,
Uh just in case you were
“Is it the start of,
Another cheap ro-wo-mance?”
Love’s a lash,
Kisses gall the tongue, harrow the heart;
Cankered tissue apart.
Be my Hottenton bondsman tonight,
The sjambok’s kiss
Is unending delight.
Love, my little slave,
For white and black
Are only states of mind.
So at my feet
Nod and genuflect, whimper for me:
Though tears are dried
Their pain is yet to be.
It was spring in Pavlovia-a-a,
I was lost, in a maze…
Lysol breezes perfumed the air,
I’d been searching for days.
I found you, in a cul-de-sac,
As bewildered as I–
We touched noses, and suddenly
My heart learned how to fly!
So together, we found our way,
Shared a pellet, or two…
Like an evening in some café,
Wanting nothing, but you…
Autumn’s come, to Pavlovia-a-a,
Once again, I’m alone–
Finding sorrow by millivolts,
Back to neurons and bone.
And I think of our moments then,
Never knowing your name–
Nothing’s left in Pavlovia,
But the maze, and the game….
No need for feel-ing so down,
Just spend a night-on-the-town,
The-Dan-ube won’t, look-so blue–
not if you do, like I do–
Just get on out-to-the ucca,
Take a stroll up–the a-ve-nue,
You’ll find that ci-ty beat puts-a
–Synco-pation in-your shoe,
So super-ficially deep,
Down where the gi-golos creep,
Too full of rhyth-m to sleep,
Good-time girl from the K and K,
Who can’t tell you if it’s night or day,
And slip away on a cruise, from
Those Austro-Hungarian blues!
Love never goes away,
Never completely dies,
Always some souvenir
Takes us by sad surprise.
You went away from me,
One rose was left behind–
Pressed in my Book of Hours,
That is the rose I find….
Though it’s another year,
Though it’s another me,
Under the rose is a drying tear,
Under my linden tree….
Love never goes away,
Not if it’s really true,
It can return, by night, by day,
Tender and green and new
As the leaves from a linden tree, love,
that I left with you.
Thought I musta been hallu-cinating,
Waiting at the light she called to me, “Let’s go!”
How am I supposed to refuse an 18-
Year-old cutie in a GTO?
We took off north, from the light at Topanga,
Tires smokin in a long hot scream,
Under the hood of my Ford Mustang, a
427 cammer runnin just like a dream–
Grille to grille, by the time we hit
Leo Carrillo [Horn section fill],
And it still, wasn’t over by Point Mugu–
Just a Ford Mustang and a sweet GTee-O,
In motion by the ocean,
Doin what the motorheads do.
Shoulda filled-up when I got-off, the San Diego, it’s
Been pinned on empty for the last ten miles,
Next thing I know she’s wavin hasta lu-ego, flashin
One of those big California smiles–
Bummed out on the shoulder, couldn’t feel bluer,
Here comes that familiar Ram Air blast,
What’s that on the front seat, right next to her,
It’s a shiny red can full of high-test gas–
So we grooved, back on down, past
Leo Carrillo [Same horn fill],
Grille to grille all the way down to Malibu,
Just a Ford Mustang and that sweet GTee-O,
In motion by the ocean
Doin what the motorheads do….
It is something less than heaven
To be quoted Thesis 1.7
Every time I make an advance;
If the world is all that the case is
That’s a pretty discouraging basis
On which to pursue
Any sort of romance.
I’ve got a proposition for you;
Logical, positive and brief.
And at least it could serve as a kind of comic relief:
Let P equal me,
With my heart in command;
Let Q equal you
With Tractatus in hand;
And R could stand for a lifetime of love,
Filled with music to fondle and purr to.
We’ll define love as anything lovely you’d care to infer to.
On the right, put that bright,
On the left, our uncleft,
And that horseshoe there in the middle
Could be lucky; we’ve nothing to lose,
If in these parentheses
We just mind our little P’s
If P [Mafia sang in reply] thinks of me
As a girl hard to make,
Then Q wishes you
Would go jump in the lake.
For R is a meaningless concept,
Having nothing to do with pleasure:
I prefer the hard and tangible things I can measure.
Man, you chase in the face
Of impossible odds;
I’m a lass in the class
Of unbossable broads.
If you’ll promise no more sticky phrases,
Half a mo while I kick off my shoes.
There are birds, there are bees,
And to hell with all your P’s
Her idea of banter
Likely isn’t Cantor,
Nor is she apt to murmur low
Axioms of Zermelo,
She’s been kissed by geniuses,
One by one in swank array,
Bright as any Poincaré,
May not care for Cauchy,
Any more than Riemann,
We’ll just have to dream on…
it occur in spots in
Whittaker and Watson–
Small but finite chances,
Would you think me pe-cul-iar,
If I should fool ya,
In-to givin’ me–just-a-little-kiss?
No one else could love you tru-lier,
How I’d worship and bejewel ya,
If you’d on-ly give-me just-a-little-kiss!
My poor heart grows un-ru-lier,
No one oolier or droolier,
Could I be longing for–
I would should hallelujah,
To have my Jool-yaaahh,
You know, it’s…
Only copper propa-
Policemen never woo, woo, woo!
Know I’d be just as cud-dly as a
You wan-ted-to-cud-dle-me too! E-
-ven in Ken-ya, Tangan-yi-ka and U-
It’s not that unheard of…
Coz it’s a
Proper crop o’propa-
A flat-tie can’t fall in love!
Oh it’s like layin’ bricks, without a trowel,
Like havin’ a luau, with no fish ‘n’ poi,
When you’re just like, a William Powell,
Lookin’ for some, Myrna Loy!
Well, Lassie’s got Roddy McDowall,
Trigger’s got, Dale and Roy,
Asta’s got William Powell, goin’
“Where th’ heck’s that, Myrna Loy?”
And just think of how Tarzan, would start to how-l,
If he only was hangin’ out, with Cheetah and Boy —
I feel like th’ alphabet, without a vowel,
Like Flatfoot Floogie, with only one Floy —
Guess I’ll just, throw in the towel,
Aw I’ll never find the, real McCoy,
Just another William Powell,
Lookin’ for that Myrna Loy….
It’s still too soon,
It’s not as if we’d kissed and kindled,
Or chased the moon
Through midnight’s hush, as dancing dwindled
Into quiet dawns,
Over secret lawns…
Too soon to know
If all that breathless conversation
A sigh ago
Was more than casual flirtation
Doomed to drift away
Into misty gray…
How can we tell,
What can we see?
Love works its spells in hiding,
Quite past our own deciding…
So who’s to say
If joyful love is just beginning,
Or if its day
Just turned to night, as Earth went spinning?
Darling, maybe so–
It’s TOO SOON TO KNOW.
I know what you want,
Princess of coquettes:
Deviations, fantasies and secret amulets.
Only try to go
Further than you’ve gone
If you never want to live to see another dawn.
Seventeen is cruel,
Yet at forty-two,
Purgatory fires burn no livelier than you.
So, come away from him,
Take my hand instead,
Let the dead get to the task of burying their dead;
Through that hidden door again,
Bravo for ’04 again; I’m a
Deutschesüdwestafrikaner in love…
Say, Mister Farenheit,
She doesn’t treat me right,
Wish you could warm up that Lady of mine,–
Look at you, on the wall,
Don’t have a, care at all,–
Even tho’ our love has plung’d,
To minus nintey-nine,– now, Doctor
Celsius, and ev’ryone else, yes,
Say, you’ve plenty to spare,–
Don’t let us freeze, can’t you
Send some Degrees, from where-
-Ever you are, out there,–
Here comes another night,
I shall once again be shiv’ring through,
With no help from your Scale,
‘Tis all Ice and Hail, and
I’ll turn-into a Snow-man, too.
And all the world’s busy, this twi-light!
Who knows what morning-streets, our shoes have known?
Who knows, how many friends, we’ve left, to cry alone?
We have a moment together,
We’ll hum this tune for a day…
Ev’ryone’s dancing, in twi-light,
Dancing the bad dream a-way….
Out on the wind…
Ride the sky,
Dare the storm….
We never once
Did speak of love,
Or I’d be free,
And a long time gone….
When the lamplight
Comes on in town,
Rings and rouge,
Oh, but my
Do they believe it all,
The way I do?
Would they fall
Into your sky,
Dove, for you….
I dream that I have found us both again,
With spring so many strangers’ lives away,
And we, so free,
Out walking by the sea,
With someone else’s paper words to say….
They took us at the gates of green return,
Too lost by then to stop, and ask them why–
Do children meet again?
Does any trace remain,
Along the superhighways of July?
Little teen-age goddess
Don’t tell me no,
Into the park tonight
We’re going to go,
Let me be
Your teen-age Romeo….
What chance has a lonely surfer boy
For the love of a surfer chick,
With all these Humbert Humbert cats
Coming on so big and sick?
For me, my baby was a woman,
For him she’s just another nymphet;
Why did they run around, why did she put me down,
And get me so upset?
Well, as long as she’s gone away-yay,
I’ve had to find somebody new,
And the older generation
Has taught me what to do–
I had a date last night with an eight-year-old,
And she’s a swinger just like me,
So you can find us any night up on the football field,
In back of P.S. 33 (oh, yeah),
And it’s as groovy as it can be.
Just a fool-who-never-wins, at love,
Though-he-plays, most-ev’, ry night…
A loser-to-the-Ones, Above,
Who stack-the-cards, of wrong, and right….
Oh, the loser never bets-it-all, and-he never-plays, to win,
He knows if-once, you don’t-succeed, you can al-ways lose-again!
Just a loser at-the-game, of love…
Spending night after night a-lo-o-o-one!
In the Ocean Wind,
Fairer than the full Moon,
Secret as a Sin,–
So the Lads all say,
Sitting on your Stoep, hop-
-Ing Love will pass today…
You keep your Slaves about,
As don’t we all,
Yet no one in love is brave,
And even a Slave may fall…
In love with,–
When South-Easters blow,
Thro’ my Dreams, I know,
To your Arms I’ll go,
Cape Girl, don’t say no.
How lonely i’-all-feels,
Wiv-out your mel-
o-dee! When shall my
Brick Lane bunt-ing
To my throbbing-brain,
Her dear refrain,
though it’s spring
In Stepney, so-we’re-told,
Here in my
try sea–until my
Singing Bird of
Perched on her lit-tle heels,
Comes trip-ping back,
Mention…[rattle of bongos] to me, [picking up slow tropical beat]
And I won’t need a replay,
My evening, is yours….
Yes that’s all, it takes,
Would it be so…ter-reeb-lay,
To dare hope for more?
Could you at last be, the one?
Out of so many mil-lyun,
If you [bongo rattle, as above] would say,
While that old Mar Carib’ lay
‘Neath the moonlight above,
It’s love…[fill phrase such as B-C-E-C-B flat]
It’s love…[etc., board-fading]
There’s a skyful of hearts,
Broken in two,
Some flyin full fare,
All us bit actors
Me him and you,
Playin our parts,
In a skyful of hearts…
Up there in first class,
Doin so fine,
Here’s ‘at No Smokin sign
That’s how it starts,
In a skyful of hearts…
To the roar of the fanjet…
You went on your way…
I’ll sure miss you, and yet…
There ain’t much to say…
Now I’m flyin alone
In economy class,
Drinkin the cheap stuff,
Till I’m flat on my ass,
Watchin my torch song
Fall off the charts,
But that’s how it goes
In a skyful of hearts…
The eyes of a New York woman [he started to sing]
Are the twilit side of the moon,
Nobody knows what goes on back there
Where it’s always late afternoon.
Under the lights of Broadway,
Far from the lights of home,
With a smile as sweet as a candy cane
And a heart all plated with chrome.
Do they ever see the wandering bums
And the boys with no place to go,
And the drifter who cried for an ugly girl
That he left in Buffalo?
Dead as the leaves in Union Square,
Dead as the graveyard sea,
The eyes of a New York woman
Are never going to cry for me.
Are never going to cry for me.
A (relatively) short and quiet entry this time around, as our segment here picks up exactly where the last one left off. Jane Winslett-Richardson has been shown to her room, Klaus has been meaninglessly cautioned against trying to sleep with her, and Steve entrusts tonight’s footage of the rubber tide to Vikram, who knows from past experience that he is to “print everything.”
From there, our male Zissous split and pair off: old-hand Steve with his wife, and newcomer Ned with even-newer-comer Jane.
First we follow Steve and Eleanor through a conversation that only lasts about a minute, but manages to be both tense and desperate at the same time. In a gorgeous piece of blocking — though it’s easy to miss this in favor of listening to what’s being said — the two of them stare off at the docked Belafonte, which is lit beautifully…but ultimately needlessly. None of Team Zissou is aboard the ship, and there are no plans for it to go anywhere. It is illuminated for the sake of being illuminated, and even we in the audience can’t appreciate it very much, as the camera doesn’t bring us anywhere near the boat. It is, instead, a tantalizing glimpse of brilliance — double meaning, there — from which we are kept at bay — there, too.
It reminds me of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Pagoda informs Royal that Etheline intends to remarry. The blocking in that scene positions Pagoda directly in front of the Statue of Liberty, so that it cannot be seen in the final film at all. There’s an anecdote about filming that scene, which I only remember vaguely, as Anderson was questioned about why he’d bother to film his scene there if he wasn’t going to let the audience see the Statue of Liberty. It’s a valid question, but the answer is obvious to me…just as obvious as the Statue of Liberty was in that scene, without it ever being on camera: it’s an act of directorial negative space. Its absence is what gives it presence.
I’m sure that just about anyone watching that scene would recognize that the Statue of Liberty is supposed to be there. We’ve seen enough films and television shows shot in exactly that place that our minds fill in the missing detail. It’s never on film in The Royal Tenenbaums, and yet there it is.
Here that negative space keeps us distanced from the Belafonte. It’s there, and we can see it, but it’s kept deliberately away from us. Lit up gloriously, another aquatic beacon like Lady Liberty, but beyond our grasp. Our minds must fill in the detail.
Personally I like to think that there was another short circuit on the ship, which turned all the lights out, and failing to fix it everyone just returned to the island to worry about it in the morning. Some time after that, the power snapped back on, and nobody’s on board to see it, or shut it off for the night. But that’s just me.
The above image also mirrors that of Steve gazing out toward his wife — and beyond her his ship — from earlier in the film, after his embarrassment at Loquasto.
…which makes it all the more resonant when Eleanor leaves him, alone by the window with his ship in the distance. A reversal of the Loquasto scene, in which it was Eleanor who was alone.
She leaves him here — though not for good, that’s still to come — because she finds out that Steve invited Ned to join them on their mission of revenge. I won’t go into it again, because I think I’ve brought it up at least twice, but, again, this casts some confusion on the earlier scene in which Steve and Eleanor discussed Ned’s joining them. What did she mean then? Why was she receptive to it at that time, but not now?
Once again Steve lapses into aquatic cliche when defending his position, tossing off two watery metaphors meant to explain his reasoning. “We’re going to put him on the map.” And “We’re going to throw him a life preserver.” This latter statement is particularly loaded in light of Ned’s eventual demise…and it’s just one node in an entire web of dark foreshadowing, forecasting the young man’s fate.
Eleanor doesn’t engage with this line of reasoning, as she’s certainly been through it before, but she does ask a question that manages to be both fair and loaded at once: when Steve says he believes in Ned, Eleanor asks him, simply, “Why?”
Steve’s answer provides a complete summary of his entire character. It’s self-centered, hopeful, nostalgic, desperate, and hurt. He says, “Because he looks up to me.”
Steve is nothing without adoration. That’s both despicable and heart-breaking. And we’ll leave the good captain here to ponder that dichotomy.
We cut from one Zissou male standing rigid in his company pajamas to the other, standing rigid in his company pajamas. As Steve is feeling abandoned and worthless, Ned is instead optimistic and full of hope. Steve is standing rigid because he’s been wounded — by his own words, tellingly — and Ned is standing rigid because…that’s who he is. With nobody else in the corridor, he still retains proper posture. It’s simply how he was raised…Ned isn’t polite because he wants to be seen as a polite man…he is polite because he is polite. He’s internalized this type of behavior not because he wishes to have good manners, but because this is who he is. And Owen Wilson sells it. Try to find an instance in The Life Aquatic of Wilson slouching or behaving in any kind of physically unbecoming way. I’ll wait. It’s an air-tight performance from an actor who’s far, far from known for any such thing.
Ned is coordinating time off with his employer, Air Kentucky. In fact, before phoning his superior he’s spoken with his colleagues, and worked with them to reorganize the schedule so that the airline will have adequate staffing and complete coverage. That’s just the kind of guy Ned is…he won’t even take personal time without being sure everything will run smoothly for everybody else in his absence.
His boss asks him, though we can’t hear it, something about the voyage he’s about to take. It’s fitting that we don’t hear the question, because Ned’s not quite sure how to answer it. Just like his father before him, his honesty betrays more about his situation than he meant to express: “Well, I just feel I need to see this thing through, sir.”
Ned doesn’t know what’s coming.
He can’t know.
But whatever it is…he needs it.
He believes that this trip, this act of animal revenge, aboard a decaying ship with a financially-troubled captain who is also the father he just met, is something he needs to see through.
Had Ned not been able to arrange coverage with his colleagues, he’d still be alive today.
Had Ned thought twice about any aspect of this trip, or not chosen to finance it himself when Team Zissou went broke, he’d still be alive today.
And the moment he says it, a light is flicked off behind him in the hallway. Another omen unseen.
Ned sacrificed himself…but not for a cause. He sacrificed himself because he needed to know. Whatever it was to know.
And whatever it was he did learn, he took it with him to the bottom of the sea.
It’s a quiet, lost moment in a loud and adventurous film…and it’s one that sticks with me the most.
One thing I’m not sure I ever noticed before this is that it’s raining in the background. There’s a gentle, soothing, watery tapping just on the edge of the soundtrack, and it sets a fantastic mood.
Of course what Ned hears, just after retiring to his own room, is the sound of classical music and Jane’s voice. He follows it down the hallway, and as he does so does the camera, which gives us a glimpse of a pitch-perfect Zissou Compound detail: the sailor’s knots lampshade in Ned’s room.
Another thing I’ve never noticed before. God I love this film.
He finds Jane reading to her unborn British child from Swann’s Way, the first volume of either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past depending upon the translation. Either title would have clear resonance for the eternally backward-facing Steve, though both go unspoken throughout the film. It’s a detail for those who recognize the book (or its text) to pick up on and appreciate for themselves. Like nearly everything else in this film, Anderson refuses to spell it out. To borrow Ned’s phrase, that leaves us pretty strongly adrift in these strange surroundings — just as Ned and Jane are, which I’m sure is deliberate — and it’s up to us to “catch as catch can.”
It’s worth talking about what’s commonly perceived here as a continuity error in the film. Ned asks if Jane is reading poetry, and she replies, “No, it’s a six volume novel,” while gesturing at the pile of books beside her. However there are six books on the chair, and the one she’s reading from would make seven.
However while I know Anderson isn’t exempt from human error, I know even more that he, of all people, isn’t likely to be careless when it comes to details of set design. So it’s either a mis-spoken line that wasn’t caught in the edit (In Search of Lost Time is actually a seven volume novel), a mistake on the part of the character (though I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that based on anything else Jane says or does in the film), or simply a marriage on our part of two disparate facts (Jane’s edition of In Search of Lost Time does indeed come in six volumes, which is actually the case when two of the shorter volumes are bound together, and the pile of books next to her are just books…not necessarily the ones to which she is referring). Whatever it is I won’t say that it’s important, but it does seem to distract some other folks that I’ve seen write about the film, so there you go.
Jane is reading the book aloud and playing classical music for her unborn child’s benefit…the same reason she’s giving up cursing and smoking. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turns quickly to the question of whether or not Steve is Ned’s father, but her questioning hits Ned hard, as his answers are tied up in his mother’s recent sickness and suicide. Jane, perceiving this, backs off.
As much similarity as we’ve seen, and will see, between Ned and Steve, this is one often overlooked similarity between Jane and Steve: both of them seek to structure the world in formats with which they are comfortable. For Steve it’s heavily-edited documentary, and for Jane it’s one-on-one interviewing, in which questions are rattled off and answers returned in easily-publishable capsules. In both cases, Ned doesn’t quite fit their expected molds…though Jane, unlike Steve, has the good grace to back off — which then, interestingly, leaves her as the one outside of her element.
A final great — and easily missable — joke here is how quickly Jane has trashed her cabin. She literally just arrived, but bags are half unpacked, laundry is everywhere, and popcorn is scattered all over the bed. It’s an interesting character touch, and lest you think that she was just too tired to get organized on her first night in the compound, a later scene reveals that she’s done the same to her cabin aboard the Belafonte, where she’s been a resident for a much longer period.
It’s a great, minor, charming quirk for a character who seeks very hard to present herself in a particular way. Open the door and peer inside, and you end up seeing something quite different from what she’d like to project.
Perhaps Steve has an illegitimate daughter, too.
Ned asks if he can listen to Jane read, and she offers to catch him up on the story. Ned, still hopeful, says that he’s sure he’ll be able to figure it out.
Once again, Ned has no idea what he’s getting himself into.
Next: It’s the Steve Zissou show.